Khartoum, 2 May 2007
Arrived in Khartoum yesterday. After 400kms of desert road and 600kms off road in temperatures up to 50 degrees rarely have we been so happy to arrive somewhere! Not that the journey was so bad, just hard hard work and unrelenting heat. Plus after a week out in the desert the thought of a shower was a very nice one...
Here's a bit of a travelogue plus some hopefully helpful info for fellow travellers - we couldn't find much info about this route so thought we'd put some down.
Visas and tickets:
Getting the Sudanese visas from Cairo was a sinch in our case. Just drop your documents in in the morning when they open and pick them up one hour later. The cost was a bit more painful - 100 US each... Apparently you can get the visa a lot cheaper from your home country but then you have to wait a lot longer as well and it is only valid for three months from issue.
Tickets are a bit more of a pain. There are ticket offices in Cairo (by the main train station) and in Aswan. Snag is that you can only buy them max one week before departure (ferries leave Mondays). Seems to be that motorcycles can pretty much always be fitted on but it's not the same case for cars. You would think that getting the ticket and getting on the ferry would be pretty easy but you'd be wrong. It's a farcical process and takes a woefully long time! The chap in Aswan who controls all foreigner tickets is a Mr Salah. We heard that he'd been operating foreigner tickets for 15 years. Plenty of time to get some decent procedures and rules in place. No! This is Egypt, rules are fluid and procedures were left behind by the Byzantines. You can call him in advance to reserve a ticket and this seems to work. He'll reserve a place but not a cabin. A 2nd class seat is 262.50 Egyptian Pounds and a 2 birth cabin more (they weren't available so we didn't ask), this seems to be about 5 times Egyptian price. Tickets for bikes are 372 Egyptian.
Loading the bike:
This was the painful bit. As far as we could work out, how the bike travels depends on what other vehicles are going along. It's only foreigners' vehicles on board as the land border is easier to use but closed to foreigners so don't expect a lot of traffic. If there are less than a couple of cars plus bikes they go on a pontoon that follows the ferry and arrives a day after the ferry. If more then there is a separate pontoon leaving the Saturday before. This is the option we had to take as we had a lorry and four four wheel drives as companions.
The 'Day of Loading' started with everyone meeting at the Nile Navigation Company's office (next door to the Aswan Tourist Police hq on the Corniche) at 9am. There followed a briefing followed by an argument - the four wheel drivers wanted to sleep with their vehicles on the pontoon but weren't allowed to. This took a good hour, apparently you can do so if coming up from Sudan but not going the other way - someone fell off a few months ago. After this all drove to the Traffic Police office to give up our Egyptian number plates and get a clearance letter. This done it was on to the port just at the top of the High Dam on Lake Nasser.
First stage at the port was a police inspection (we thought it was customs but a customs one came later and customs told us that the revious check had been a police one!?) Next picking up and paying for the vehicle tickets from an office on the other side of the compound. Sounds simple enough but allow for a lot of time. Back to the other side of the port for getting carnets stamped out and then on to the pontoon. By about 2.30 all was finished (that's 5 and a half hours to get a bike on a fery folks!)
The ferry trip:
We were pretty much told to turn up at the ferry on Monday morning at 9 and ask for a long wait. We got it. After loading the pontoon that follows the ferry with unfeasible amounts of Egyptian produce we set sail at about 6.30. Best advice for the ferry is to do all you can to book a cabin. It is crowded and for some reason best known to themselves the ferry crew wash the second class compartment floors with diesel. Nice. Sleeping-wise it is every man for himself. We managed to find a nice-ish spot on the prow of the boat but the prow was mysteriously and rapidly flooded at about 2am promting a mass evacuation. Eventually we settled on the roof of the bridge and managed a few hours kip. Highlight of the trip was seeing the Abu Simbel collosal figures at about 7am making us very grateful that we hadn't bothered to get up early and make the long trip through the desert from Aswan to see them.
Arriving in Wadi Halfa:
Guess what? There were a few delays getting off too! Still it wasn't all bad, the boat arrived in at one-ish in the afternoon and we were unloaded and got the vehicles through customs by about 5.30 after being stung for a few dollars by a 'carnet fixer' in the customs office.
Great news for us was that as well as Jason the German BMW-ist there were four 4wds and a lorry and we all pretty much decided to do the route in convoy so that evening we exited Wadi Halfa for the first desert camp.
Having exited Wadi Halfa we entered once more and sorted out police registration. Three hours later we hit the road!
It's hot but not too bad as a North wind is blowing us along and keeping the temperature down a bit. First impressions are that the piste isn't too bad. Plenty of sand but all doable enough. Then us bikes take a wrong turn and manage to plow on through 10 kms of sand before we realise we've gone wrong... Back on the proper track things take a turn for the worse as the track turns to the most brutal corrugations with deep sand either side so no way of escape. This stretch of the road is pretty desolate, well away from the Nile, but stunning craggy, sandy desert. All in we manage 100kms down the road today.
An early start and off we go. After 50 or so kms we reach the first village of the route (Firka). From here on in petrol is avalable at most villages as is water (not bottled though!). The track today is a mix of sand and corrugations with the odd decent hard-packed section in between. The road has been away from the Nile for most of the day but we're back at it for tonights camp. Great to camp Nile-side but the night is blighted by an absolute plague of small black flies. We wake in the morning to the gentle patter of millions of flies headbutting our tent. Out here even some locals wear fly-nets over their heads. About 100kms covered again today. A quick check over the bike shows a broken rear shocker.
After 30kms or so we finally hit the Nile and stay there. The Nubian villages along the Nile were what really made the trip. Everyone waving and smiling, women in wonderful colouful clothes and fantastic mud-brick houses. The track takes a turn for the better though still pretty sandy in places. The North wind has left us and the temperature is up. Around 45 degrees most of the day. It's just about tolerable riding in this temperature but getting bogged in the sand and lifting out really wipes you out for a good while. We're getting through nearly 15 litres of water a day. This has been the great thing about riding with the 4wd-ers - they've made life easier for us and carried most of the bikes spare water and fuel. We stop for a long lunch under some palm trees Nile-Side and carry on again after a couple of hours. Everyone we've heard from who's done the route hs come off multiple times. We had been congratulating ourselves for a clean sheet so far but then disaster struck and we were bounced into a very deep and soft sand pit and came to a quick stop. No more serious injury than a slight squashing of the tackle against the petrol tank but the bikes forks are bent. With the wheel straight the 'bars are pointing about 25 degrees to the right. We dig out and catch up with the others. Once again the Land Rovers come in and give Sascha a lift and take the luggage of the bike. We bed down after nearly 150kms. The flies are still there but less.
Dongola or bust! The thought of a hotel room and a shower is spurring us on. Despite the wonky steering the bike is a lot easier to handle without passenger and luggage. They're building a new tarmac road to connect Khartoum with Wadi Halfa and from here on in there's a few sections rideable on a bike. Not many of them are tarred or go on for more than a couple of kms but it's still a lot more preferable to being shaken to pieces on the corrugations or digging into soft sand. When we can't take the bits of new road this section is tough as it's the sandiest of the route. Still we clear nearly 200kms today and take the ferry across the Nile to the long awaited town of Dongola. It's a bit of a let down. Very dodgy hotels and not a lot going on. Still the exhaustion and lure of a shower, at least when the water is working, make us stay 2 nights. Down here the nightime temperatures are higher and sleep is fitful.
We wake up to a heavy dust storm but decide to go anyway, in the end it keeps temperatures down a bit. There's black top stretching for 60kms South of Dongola. When you hit the sand again it seems like a cruel joke. Even the most intrepid off-roaders would be eager for some relief at this point. The new road building is continuing though and it's possible to get a bike up the embankment to ride along it. They really don't want you too though and stretches are like an obstacle course. It started off quite funny, we had oil drum slaloms, limbo poles and narrow gaps between rocks to negotiate but then as we went on it got crueler with hidden ditches, some fillled with soft sand and bridges with a sly section missing. About 120kms of this and we hit proper asphalt again (about 30kms North of Abu Junction). The road is smooth as a babys bottom and straight as you like. We give up the push for Khartoum about 220kms short and camp down in the desert.
Into Khartoum just after midday. Would have cracked open a bottle champagne is Sudan wasn't a dry country.
That's us then. In Khartoum, slowly roasting in 45 degrees. Sudan has been a great place, some amazing scenery and friendly people but the first thought now is leaving and heading for the lush highlands of Ethiopia, three days ride away. In this temperature everything you touch is hotter than you. Going to bed in the heat on a heated mattress and waking up in the morning to put on hot clothes is not a lot of fun. First though we're got to fix up a very battered and slightly bent bike, and that's not just us, even the BMW of Jason took a beating too with ignition problems, quickly detachable mirrors and panniers bouncing down the road..
Posted by Richard Miller at May 02, 2007 11:37 AM GMT